With a host of exhibitions, TV programmes and special events on right now, the Thames is the talk of London. And as the sole reason as to why London is what it is and where it is today, it is only proper that this important river gets the just historical recognition that it deserves. It is quite simply the mother of the world’s greatest capital city.
But, sadly, the Thames is now a shadow of its former glory. In comparison to days gone by, it is relatively sedate and underused. Once used as a major trade route into the centre of the capital, the Thames now only really carries tourists. So while a prosperous London may have grown up over the years, it has all been at the expense of the river that made it successful. London’s first “super highway” stands as a bit of a dinosaur.
Just over a week ago, the Thames formed the centre piece of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations. In marked contrast to its normal course of use these days, tens of thousands braved the rain (or at least endured the BBC’s dreary coverage) to watch am impressive flotilla of ships accompany our monarch travelling in her royal barge as she marked 60 years on the throne. I have to confess I was out of the country for the Bank Holiday weekend, but I’ve now caught up on some of the TV highlights and I admit aspects did look pretty spectacular.
To those that witnessed those bustling Jubilee scenes this month, this form of river pageantry is nowadays a bit of novelty. But, as the excellent Royal River exhibition at the National Maritime Museum so clearly illustrates, there is a proud 500 years of history linking the royals and river Thames. Visiting the exhibition this afternoon, I discovered how the Thames has for a long time been used both a way of showing off to subjects, in a sense public theatre, but also as a way for kings and queens to reach their numerous palaces along the river.
Many a coronation, royal wedding and state funeral have taken place at venues along this magical river. Wars, fought in the name of kings and queens, were won thanks to the power of Navy fleets built at Royal dockyards such as Woolwich and Deptford. And royal yachts, moored along the Thames, allowed monarchs to travel around Europe in what could only be deemed luxurious floating palaces, with no expense speared in terms of lavish entertainment, dining and comfort.
And as someone who is very interested in the history of the City of London, I particularly enjoyed the displays at the Royal River exhibition on 400 years of the annual Lord’s Mayor river procession. From 1485 to 1856, the different guilds in their brightly decorated barges would form a flotilla accompanying the new Lord Mayor as he travelled to the Palace of Westminster for an inauguration ceremony led by the monarch.
There is a vivid painting from 1683 that shows Charles II watching the newly installed Mayor. And the exhibition features some of the colourful carvings from the barges of the different livery companies, such as one from the Fishmonger company from 1773. A parade still takes place every year when a Lord Mayor is elected but sadly it no longer involves a river procession.
In terms of trade, when the British Empire was in its prime in the 19th century, the Thames was alive with ships carrying an array of goods to all four corners of the world. The busyness of the Thames is wonderfully captured at Royal River in a large scale panorama of the river from 1845. How different it must have been to the relative sedateness of the Thames today where its use is largely restricted to tourist boats.
I was also captivated at Royal River by amazing prints showing the scene in 1683 and 1684 when the Thames was frosted over with ice 28cm thick. Stalls were set up on the frosted river and people enjoyed games like skittles and bull bating. Souvenirs, including embossed mugs on show at the exhibition, were sold to commemorate this ‘Frost Fair’.
The central role of the Thames in the development of London was wonderfully captured in Britain’s Lost Routes with Griff Rhys Jones. The presenter helped crew the first barge laden with straw and hay to travel down for the Thames for over 70 years. Before the advent of motor cars and buses, this fuel laboriously brought from the east of England was essential in keeping the horses that powered carts lining the city’s streets adequately fed. On the return journey, the barges carried horse waste back to the east of England for use as fertiliser.
But it wasn’t just hay and straw that was brought in the boats down the Thames. As Griff Rhys Jones pointed out on Lost Routes, they carried food for people to eat, barley for beer and bricks and sand for building. Ironically, many of the materials carried on the barges were used in the construction of the roads which helped to make the Thames obsolete as an essential highway for bringing goods in and out of London.
Dan Cruickshank’s the Bridges That Built London programme on BBC4 tonight provided more clues on the reasons for the decline of the Thames. This excellent film was fixed as essential viewing in my diary after I heard him speak on the subject a few weeks ago at the Tales of the Thames festival, a series of talks by authors on different aspects of the history of the river.
As Dan commented at the top of his BBC programme tonight, bridges were instrumental in the making of London: “Bridges are far more than means of transport…. they are also a way of linking the present to the past.” When the Romans were looking for the site for their new town 2,000 years ago they chose where they did because it was the shallowest and narrowest place for a crossing point. London became successful because of what was brought from one side of the bridge to the other.
The imposing stone medieval bridge, started in 1176, featured homes, shops and even a chapel dedicated to Thomas Beckett where many pilgrims stopped at on their way to Canterbury. Until Westminster Bridge was built in the 18th century, it was the only structure that could be used for people to cross the river. The tolls collected from London Bridge were immense and the ongoing annual surplus of some £20m today provides the means to fund a number of charities in the capital.
But it was bridges that helped bring about decline for the Thames. After Westminster Bridge was built many others followed, reducing the need for people to travel along the river. Many, including the Watermen, did protest but they couldn’t do anything to halt the construction of bridges. They did, however, get the modern day equivalent of £2m when Westminster Bridge was opened to compensate for lost trade.
If London couldn’t have existed in the first place without the Thames, it couldn’t have grown to what it is today without its bridges. They quite literally connected and helped it to make the modern world.
And bridges are today continuing to rejuvenate parts of London today. As Dan Cruickshank pointed out in his programme tonight, the relatively new Millennium Bridge which connects the Tate Modern and Southwark with St Paul’s has helped bring tourists to the area. But as a blog posted today suggests bridges weren’t the only threat to the river Thames – there had been plans for a major tunnel instead of a Tower Bridge.
So after 2,000 years of history between London and the Thames, do we have a reason to be optimistic about the future? As it stands, I am afraid I have to say ‘no’. I have talked about the royal pageant which was celebrated this month by many, but in the normal course of events the river is barely used. What’s more, the bridges we have to look at today are nothing in comparison to the grand bridges of the past. I share Dan Cruickshank’s hope that one day we will have a bridge in London which is inhabited with homes and shops.
We can’t expect pageants every week and Britain is no longer the workshop of the world so we can’t anticipate high loads of goods flowing out of central London on barges, but surely there is a role for some supplies to be brought in on boats for people living in the city. And, as we approach the Olympics where the capitals infrastructure will be put under considerable strain it seems crazy that the Thames is largely ignored as a solution to move people about.
Why don’t more passengers travel by river bus? It is, quite simply, an expensive and slow way to travel. Take travelling from Westminster to the Tower of London. By boat it would cost you £9.50 for a single, far more than by bus (£2.30) or Tube (£4.30). For the latter two options there are even greater savings to be had with Oyster and travel cards. And then there’s the time it takes – the Westminster to Tower boat journey I found buried away on the Tfl website took 40 minutes. Something needs to be done to make river travel more attractive.
The Thames was London’s first “super highway” and the mother of city. I can only hope that Londoners making decisions in the future show some loyalty to its maker.